World War I

The Big Red One in Action at Ansauville, 1918

First Division Poster, 1918. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

One hundred years ago, the Big Red One experienced the horrors of gas warfare for the first time.

First in Combat

The 1st Division doughboys tasted trench warfare when they moved to the front in the autumn of 1917. On November 2, the first three American soldiers to be killed in action fell during a German raid near the village of Bathelémont. Partly as a result of this action—investigated by young captain named George C. Marshall—General Robert Bullard was assigned to command the 1st Division. Impatient and aggressive, Bullard determined that he would never let the Big Red One be surprised again.

General Robert Lee Bullard, 1919. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

General Bullard Leads the Way

In January 1918 Bullard led his division into the Ansauville sector in Lorraine, north of the French city of Toul. This was supposed to be a “quiet” area, where the Americans could learn about modern warfare at leisure. Unfortunately, the Germans applied brutal lessons all too quickly. Enemy troops easily observed most of the 1st Division’s lines from an eminence called Mont Sec, and in places the American and German positions were only fifty yards apart. Rain, snow and sleet pelted the miserable doughboys daily, filling up their trenches with water and viscous mud.

General Bullard’s first order to his troops was: “There are no orders which require us to wait for the enemy to fire on us before we fire on him; do not wait for him to fire first.” He also insisted on regular patrols and raids to keep his troops—and the enemy—on their toes. “In doing these things we have inevitably lost men,” he proudly declared after a few weeks in the line, “but gained heart and made the enemy feel us as is shown by his increased circumspection.” No one complained about the casualties—this was war, and the doughboys yearned to fight.

U.S. infantry wearing gas masks in France, 1918. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Gas!

In February, American artillery began experimenting with chemical warfare, lobbing a few dozen chlorine and phosgene poison gas shells at the enemy lines. They did not have to wait long for a response. On February 26, 1918, the Germans launched a massive gas bombardment against 1st Division positions. The consequences were devastating.

The Big Red One and other American divisions had received intensive training in gas warfare. Instructors knew about the dangers of German mustard gas, which burned men on the outside as well as inside. Warning the doughboys that gas attacks would separate “the quick and the dead,” instructors told them to don their gas masks quickly; wear them until ordered to take them off; avoid exposing their skin; and at all costs stay out of shell holes and dugouts filled with gas.

Administrative foul-ups left the doughboys with insufficient and sometimes faulty equipment, however, and thousands of soldiers entered the lines without gas respirators. Worse, repeated drills left some of the Americans lazy rather than alert. They neglected their equipment and ignored alarms. As a result, on February 26 many reacted too late. When gas alarms sounded along the line, doughboys ignored them until sickly yellow gas came wafting into their dugouts. Others panicked. One battalion commander reported:

“One man in panic stampeded and knocked down two others adjusting their masks. He rushed down the trench screaming and made no attempt to put on his respirators. He died shortly after reaching the dressing station. Another man threw himself in the bottom of the trench and began to scream. Two others trying to adjust his respirator had their own pulled off and were gassed. He was finally carried out of the area but died not long after. Another private couldn’t find his respirator and became panic-stricken. When it was found and finally adjusted, he claimed it was broken and changed into his French mask, breathing in gas while he changed. On the way to the dressing station he repeatedly pulled the French mask away from his face and breathed the gas laden air, and died shortly after reaching the station. An officer was gassed while shouting to the men to keep their respirators on.”

“The suddenness and the violence of the attack, coupled with the overwhelming fumes of the gas, were horrifying,” declared one officer. Although only seventy casualties were reported that day, dozens more came in to dressing stations and hospitals over the following days. Hundreds of doughboys—this was typical throughout the war—thought they had only caught a “whiff” of gas and did not report as casualties, only to find later, sometimes after the war, that their lungs had been irretrievably ruined. Of the 549 total casualties suffered by the division during its stay in the Ansauville sector, well over half fell victim to mustard and other forms of poison gas.

Gas casualties convalescing at Bellevue Hospital, 1918. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Painful Lessons, New Strength

At terrible cost the 1st Division doughboys learned a vital lesson at Ansauville. Never again would they be caught so terribly unprepared for gas attacks—although other outfits went through the same brutal process as they reached the front. The Big Red One, though, was toughened. Just a few days later, on March 1, German troops attempted to raid the 1st Division trenches only to be “met by a strong fire from our infantry, who stood up before the enemy without flinching, refraining from going into the dugouts and holding their trenches with rifle fire and hand grenades.” Soon they would be ready to do their bit in driving the Germans out of France.

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Hikes Through History

Hiking Through History to the Eisenhower Farm, Gettysburg, PA

Caitlin Conley, yours truly, Tony Ten Barge and Mark Kate Roberts at the Eisenhower Farm

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander during World War II and President of the United States from 1953 to 1961, is one of the foremost leaders in the history of the United States–and indeed the world. He is also a distant cousin of mine, by virtue of our shared Pennsylvania German ancestry. In February 2018, I was privileged to visit his farm at Gettysburg, Pa., escorted by Mary Kate Roberts and Tony Ten Barge of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Society.

The Farm

Ike and Mamie Eisenhower purchased this 189-acre farm, with its house, barn and outbuildings, for $44,000 in 1950. Included in the price: farm equipment, 24 cattle and several hundred chickens! The location was ideal for the retired but active lifestyle that they hoped to lead for the future. For Ike, Gettysburg held the additional appeal of bringing him back to his family roots, and to America’s most famous Civil War battlefield. It also returned him to Camp Colt, where he had served as a captain in 1918 and helped to usher in the dawn of the U.S. Army’s Tank Corps.

Ike became president in 1953, quashing for a time any hopes he had of retiring to his farm (an experience he shared in common with one of his heroes, George Washington). Like the White House, however, the Eisenhower farm served a combination of domestic and state functions. President Eisenhower often entertained heads of state at his farm, including Nikita Khrushchev, Winston Churchill, and Charles DeGaulle. In the course of these visits, as I learned, Ike defused irascible VIPs like DeGaulle with cocktails in the Porch, or with steaks barbecued on his outdoor grill.

The Porch, where Ike entertained VIP guests

Ike and Mamie finally retired to the farm full time in 1961. They had heavily renovated it during his presidency, and so it served comfortably to accommodate the couple along with their families and grandchildren. Ike donated the site to the National Park Service in 1967. He died two years later. Mamie continued to live there until her own death in 1979, and the following year the NPS opened it to the public.

The Tour

A former White House fireplace in the Living Room

The Eisenhower Society works closely with the NPS to maintain and improve the site, raising funds for this purpose and also educating the public about Eisenhower’s legacy. Mary Kate and Tony along with a NPS park ranger (thanks Alice!) conducted my fiancé Caitlin and I throughout the farm building and grounds. We saw the Porch where Ike painted, and as Tony put it, “disarmed” his guests with scotch, and the office where he read works by Will and Ariel Durant and Bruce Catton as well as western pulps by the likes of Zane Grey. Among the treats is the Living Room, which includes a marble fireplace that was in the White House until President Ulysses Grant removed it in 1873.

Mamie Eisenhower

Mamie’s imprint is indelible too. We viewed her wonderful knick knack shelves packed with curios, and her pink bathroom–much adored by visiting girl scouts. As an interior designer she stayed much in the mold of the 1950s, but with an energy and obvious good humor that cannot help warming the visitor’s heart. The kitchen–nicely preserved–was Ike’s rather than her domain: she liked to joke that she could only make fudge and mayonnaise! We also perused the guestbook that Mamie insisted everyone sign whenever they walked through the front door–including her grandchildren!

The mood here is consistently upbeat, transcending the cold austerity of the White House and rising above some other historic homes that seem like dusty mausoleums. The NPS does a brilliant job of maintaining and interpreting the site (including the living farm) with minimal funding, and the Eisenhower Society is a model of dedication. Both deserve public support. Tourists who visit Gettysburg to tour the battlefield do themselves a disservice if they do not include a visit to the adjacent Eisenhower farm, home of a truly great American leader.

Postscript: Tanks, Packards, and a Historic Hotel

After our tour of Ike’s farm we drove a short distance to visit Frank and Loni Buck, who support the Eisenhower Society and are among the foremost collectors of historic vehicles in the United States. Frank’s warehouses include lovingly restored World War II Jeeps, GMC and Ford trucks, as well as a Sherman tank and M10 tank destroyer. I confess that I drooled over his collection of vintage automobiles, including Corvettes and a magnificent 1932 Packard.

The Federal Pointe Inn, Gettysburg, Pa.

To round off the day, we lodged at the wonderful Federal Pointe Inn in Gettysburg, centrally located near the farm and battlefield, where the amenities include fresh scones. The building is a restored schoolhouse dating from 1896–our room included a blackboard! Admittedly, this was not among my most rugged hikes through history, but it certainly ranked among the most enjoyable.

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World War I

Red Arrow on the Leviathan: Michigan and Wisconsin Doughboys Go to War, 1918

The USS Leviathan arrives in New York City, December 16, 1918. Bain News Service, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The 32nd “Red Arrow” Division began its journey to the Western Front in January and February 1918. In combat, it would be a game-changer. Formed from the Michigan and Wisconsin National Guard, the division would play a leading role in cracking one of the most vital strong points in Germany’s Hindenburg Line, and pave the way to victory. The French would designate the Michigan and Wisconsin doughboys, “Les Terribles.” First, though, the Red Arrow had to pass through a gantlet of fire.

Bunker Haan

The Red Arrow trained at Camp MacArthur near Waco, Texas. The men from Michigan and Wisconsin did not get on well together at first, and exchanged taunts and a few fisticuffs before they learned to cooperate. Their commander, General William G. Haan, was a West Point graduate from Crown Point, Indiana. His stubbornness earned him the nickname “Bunker Haan.” The son of German immigrants to the United States, Haan was a no-nonsense type of officer; but he also stood out for his dedication to the welfare of his men. He thought his job was not to bully subordinates, but to give his doughboys the physical and moral tools they needed to beat the enemy.

General William G. Haan, commanding 32nd Division. Bain News Service, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Call to Action

Haan’s men began departing Camp MacArthur in early January 1918 for the trip overseas. They were broken up into several detachments that boarded ships at port facilities in New York and New Jersey. The first group sailed on January 13. In the weeks that followed, others embarked on American transports named the George Washington, Martha Washington, President Grant, President Lincoln. The unlucky, including engineers, medics, military police and other support personnel, climbed on board the British transport SS Tuscania.

Tragedy

The Tuscania was near its destination—Liverpool—on the night of February 5 when a German U-Boat torpedoed it off the coast of Scotland. Most of the troops were asleep at the time, but they behaved admirably under pressure, following drill as they worked their way onto the deck and the waiting lifeboats. But time was short, and just over two hundred Americans were either killed in the initial explosion or drowned before they could reach safety. A monument on the Scottish island of Islay still commemorates their sacrifice.

The Leviathan

The Tuscania’s fate occupied the minds of many Red Arrow soldiers one month later when some 8,242 of them boarded the USS Leviathan. This gigantic ship had once been the Vaterland of Germany’s Hamburg-America Line before it was confiscated upon American entry into the war. Despite its size, the ship was crammed nearly to bursting with American troops—officers on the top two decks, and men mashed into the lower decks with their massive canvas packs. To move to and fro, they had to squeeze through aisles only eighteen inches wide. There was next to no ventilation.

A juicier target for German U-Boats was hard to imagine. A single torpedo hit would doom thousands of men.

This was the Leviathan’s second journey across the Atlantic as a troop ship. On its first visit to Liverpool in February, it had “been camouflaged in a most queer design by English experts, which made it appear more grotesque than ever.” Even with the camouflage, however, the crew and Red Arrow passengers worried about U-Boats.

Doughboys of the 32nd Red Arrow Division, circa 1918. Bain News Service, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A Close Call

The Leviathan departed New York Harbor on March 4, making a steady speed of twenty knots. Each doughboy was given a life vest, and abandon ship drills filled the days. At night the ship was kept dark except for a few small blue “battle lights” at doorways. The mood on board was tense. Ship crew, concerned not just with U-Boats but with the possibility of sabotage—many Red Arrow doughboys had German heritage—guarded the ship tightly. One doughboy was arrested and thrown in the brig for “seditious remarks.”

The ship entered the war zone—known to be infested with submarines—on March 11 as it made a zigzag course for Liverpool amid a screen of escort destroyers. Hours later the doughboys got the fright of their lives when an explosion shook the Leviathan “from stem to stern.” Minutes passed before they realized that the destroyer Manly had sighted a suspicious object and dropped depth charges just 800 yards from the Leviathan; the escort ship also fired its five-inch batteries as it dashed about frantically. But no U-Boat was sighted, and the Leviathan sailed on unhurt.

The doughboys heaved a collective sigh of relief as the Leviathan pulled into Liverpool dock on March 12, 1918. As they debarked, many expected some sort of reward for what they had endured—at least a hearty meal? Instead, they received a humble repast of bread, cheese and tea. In disgust, they named their first camp on British soil “Camp Cheese.”

A few months later the Red Arrow entered combat and made its mark. The Leviathan, meanwhile, continued its trans-Atlantic duties as a troop ship, and emerged from the war unscathed. On December 16, 1918, the ship returned triumphantly to New York City carrying thousands of victorious doughboys. Among the passengers: outfielder Ty Cobb of baseball’s Detroit Tigers, who had served in the U.S. Army’s Chemical Corps.

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George Washington, News

A Historic George Washington Monument in Ireland: Visiting Belcamp Hall

George Washington Tower at Belcamp Hall

A Mission to Ireland

At the end of January 2018 I embarked on a ten-day visit to Ireland on behalf of the White House Historical Association. The WHHA is developing a number of partnered programs to celebrate Irish architect James Hoban (1755-1831), who designed the White House under George Washington’s oversight in the 1790s and later played a vital role in the building’s reconstruction after the British burned it in 1814. Hoban’s professional roots lay in Palladian styles specific to late eighteenth-century Ireland, most notably in Kildare House—now Leinster House in Dublin, now home to the Irish Parliament.

One of the most intriguing sites possibly related to Hoban, however, is Belcamp Hall, an eighteenth-century estate on the northern outskirts of Dublin. It is haunted by the ghost of none other than George Washington, whose papers I edited for twenty years and about whom I have written several books.

Edward Newenham and George Washington

The man who built Belcamp Hall, Edward Newenham (1732-1814), was an Irish M.P. and fervent admirer of Washington, whom he dubbed “the Greatest ornament of this century.” For his part, Washington said that “To stand well in the estimation of good men, & honest patriots, whether of this or that clime, or of this or that political way of thinking, has ever been a favorite wish of mine; & to have obtained, by such pursuits as duty to my Country; & the rights of mankind rendered indispensably necessary, the plaudit of Sir Edwd Newenham, will not be among my smallest felicities.” The two corresponded frequently (so did Newenham and Benjamin Franklin) from the time of the Revolutionary War to the mid-1790s—many of their letters have been lost and may wait to be rediscovered. Although the two long-distance friends never met in person, Newenham’s son-in-law John Wallace spent a few nights at Mount Vernon in the spring of 1786.

Belcamp Hall

Interior Detail, Belcamp Hall

Newenham purchased the Belcamp Estate in about 1763, but although some sources date the Hall that currently stands on the site to that time, it was probably not built until the mid-1780s. It is a red brick, three-story construction in which Hoban, then just making his way as a builder, allegedly participated. It was (more on this later), beautifully decorated inside with plasterwork, reliefs and murals typical of the time. One piece (see photo) carries an intriguing theme in eighteenth-century warfare. Outside, the complex included a massive walled garden and outbuildings formed around a courtyard that included a “ball alley.”

Newenham described his estate to Washington and Franklin with evident pride, and in return they showered him with praise—Washington particularly admired Newenham’s experiments in scientific gardening. Like some others in Ireland, Belcamp Hall was modeled on Mount Vernon—at least in spirit—as the ideal country home. Sadly, though, Newenham—who proudly displayed busts of Washington and Lafayette next to one of Virgil—had to sell the estate in 1793 to pay debts.

The First Washington Monument?

One of the most fascinating features of the estate is a massive monument to George Washington that Newenham constructed in 1778—thus predating the current building. It is, so far as I know, the earliest monument ever erected to Washington and the only one built during his lifetime. Whether Washington knew about it is unclear, but if he did he may well have admired its wholly military (if not terribly republican) character.

The tower is a red brick construction about twenty feet square and thirty feet high, roughly in the form of a classic star fort with gothic windows decorated with crenellation. It originally bore an inscription reading “Oh, ill-fated Britain! The folly of Lexington and Concord will rend asunder and forever disjoin America from thy empire.” That inscription now appears to be lost; now, a marker indicates that the tower was built in dedication to Washington in 1778 and restored in 1984.

A Sad History

Belcamp Hall was purchased in the 1880s by the Oblate Brothers and converted into a college in 1893. They added residential wings as well as a Gothic revival style chapel and appear to have done a good job maintaining the property despite a fire in 1921. Photographs of the property taken in the 1990s that I viewed at the Irish Architectural Archive in Dublin show a largely intact home with beautiful features and a Washington Tower situated on a pristine lawn. Since the closure of Belcamp College in 2004, however, the estate has fallen largely into ruins.

My Visit

Belcamp Hall Today

I visited the estate on a cold, blustery day at the end of January, accompanied by architectural historian Brian O’Connell of O’Connell Mahon Architects in Dublin, and conducted by two very kind gentlemen from Gannon Homes Ltd. which now owns the property. The approach was through a construction site and across a sea of mud navigable only by four-wheelers. The first sight to catch our eye was the hall itself, surrounded by insurmountable steel railings and fronted by a vast pile of rubble. Open windows gaped from the central Hall building—largely intact on the exterior but with obvious signs of fire destruction inside. The nineteenth-century residential dormitories are mostly wrecked and the chapel evidently a gutted shell. The cause: multiple arson attacks on the property, as recently as 2016.

The Washington Tower looks about half a millennium older than its 240 years. It is pitted and decayed, with iron bars blocking its windows and ugly concrete blocks barring entrance through its central door. It is surrounded by garbage and mud. Still, it is substantially intact and possible to restore. Even Belcamp Hall, though badly damaged, retains many of its original furnishings. The walled garden still exists though it now plays host to a number of bedraggled ponies; the outbuildings are visible too.

Irish historians have been concerned about the property for years but lack the resources for a full restoration—which would now in any case seem to be impossible. Gannon Homes, which deplores and has tried to prevent the damage (let’s face it, protection from vandals at what until recently has been a remote spot is difficult at best), is now planning to convert the property into apartments, while hopefully retaining as many of the original furnishings as possible and mayhap restoring the Washington Tower.

So far as I know, however—and I would welcome correction—Americans have demonstrated no interest in this site or in the Washington Tower, although there are some places and institutions I can think of that could easily muster the resources to ensure its preservation. Here’s hoping that something can be done to make certain that this amazing, if haunting site, can be preserved for future generations as a testament to Irish-American friendship.

For more information on the history of this site, see “Designs for Belcamp House and Mount Vernon” by Professor Finola O’Kane in the 2017 Irish Georgian Society Review.

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The Lost Battalion, World War I

Doughboys in Action at New York City’s Hippodrome, 100 Years Ago

New York City’s Hippodrome, c.1910. From F.H. Tucker, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Doughboys Arrive at the Hippodrome

The Hippodrome—a fantastic, fairy-tale castle of a building situated on Sixth Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets—was once one of New York City’s premiere entertainment venues. Opened in 1905, it was hailed as the world’s largest theater, with a stage that could accommodate 1,000 people and a seating capacity for an audience of over 5,000 spectators. Famed magician Harry Houdini presented his extravaganzas there in the early months of World War I. On February 3, 1918, however, the venue would be put to full use by a regiment of doughboys less than a year away from becoming famous on a different kind of stage: combat in France.

Several special trains from Long Island’s Camp Upton pulled in to Penn Station that morning, carrying troops of the 77th “Metropolitan” Division’s 308th Regiment. Crowds of citizens gathered to cheer the doughboys as they marched smartly toward the Hippodrome, where billboards had been announcing their engagement for that night. Leading them was a wealthy Irish-American stockbroker, Captain George McMurtry, whose Company E had been designated the finest in the regiment. No one knew then, of course, that Company E would later compose part of the famed Lost Battalion—surrounded in the Argonne Forest and attacked repeatedly by elite German storm troopers—or that Captain McMurtry’s heroism would earn him the Medal of Honor.

The Spectacle Begins

A capacity crowd had taken seats at the Hippodrome that evening when the curtain rose to reveal the huge stage garlanded in colorful flags and bunting. To the tune of rousing martial music, Company E burst proudly upon the scene and carried out meticulously choreographed “fancy marches” of a type that would later inspire movie musical director Busby Berkeley. After curtain-fall, a short break allowed hands to reconfigure the stage for the main act.

First appeared the regimental chorus around a faux campfire “somewhere in France.” The glow reflected off the soldiers’ faces as they sang patriotic hymns, finishing with the Star-Spangled Banner. Then the men dispersed across the stage to give a demonstration in camouflage and sniping, picking off six skulking “Germans.”

The curtains closed, again allowing the prop men to work their magic. When they rolled back, the audience gasped to see two lines of shell-blasted trenches separated by a no-man’s land replete with shell holes and tree stumps. A dozen khaki-clad doughboys appeared wearing white-rubber-soled “creepers,” sneaking and dodging from one shell-hole to another until they were within two yards of the German trenches. Several unsuspecting gray-clad Germans appeared.

The scene paused in tense silence for a few moments until a tree stump that was really a doughboy in disguise shot forward, sending a German sprawling. Spectators were too awed and astonished to laugh at the Charlie Chaplinesque moment. At this signal, the rest of the Americans rushed the German trench and subdued the enemy with gunfire, rifle butts and bayonets. A single doughboy was wounded, and gingerly carried back to his own trench. The delighted crowd “yelled like mad” as choreographer Regnar Kidde, the regimental bayonet instructor and a second-generation Dane from Manhattan, took a bow.

Next, a platoon under First Lieutenant Louis J. Lederie, Jr. of New York appeared in a mock trench with sentinels standing guard on a firing step. Suddenly a Klaxon horn sounded a gas alarm. Within six seconds every soldier had a fake gas mask on his face. A “real” attack followed by “enemy” soldiers, and the gas mask-clad soldiers stepped up and fired rapidly to beat off the enemy while some of their comrades beat the poison gas out of the trench with sacks and overcoats. Sadly, one of the defenders was overcome by the gas and collapsed. The audience fretted as his buddies carried the soldier to a “dugout,” swiftly treated him, and sent him back to the hospital and the tender care of army nurses.

“Here was the very stuff of modern warfare,” enthused a reporter from the New York Tribune; “the smell and the thrill and the savor of it, in all its horror and its glory depicted by the men who are on their way to take part in it.” But it would fade in comparison to what would happen to many of these same men in France in October 1918. During combat in and around the Argonne Forest, hundreds of them would be killed or injured; including McMurtry and Kidde, who were severely wounded, and Lederie, who was killed in action.

A March Through Manhattan

After the show ended to delirious applause, McMurtry and his fellow officers and men spent a freezing night in the armory at Park Avenue and 34th Street. On the following day, Monday, February 4, they provided the city with its first military parade since the previous autumn. The morning dawned cold and bright as the 308th Regiment marched up Eighth Avenue to 59th Street, and then across to Fifth Avenue. Turning with precision, they marched back down to 34th Street before ecstatic crowds. The regimental band led, blaring music from thirty buglers and eighteen drummers under bandmaster Herman Schoenfeld. A Long Island lawyer, Scheonfeld would later conduct funeral music for many of these men as they were carried dead out of the Argonne Forest.

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The Lost Battalion, World War I

Doughboys and Baseball: A Classic Game at the Polo Grounds, 1917

The New York Yankees Drill at the Polo Grounds, April 1917. From the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The United States celebrated National Draft Day on September 4, 1917. Thousands of draftees across the nation marched in parades as they prepared to depart for the training camps that would ready them for service in the First World War. The biggest parade took place in New York City, where draftees of the soon-to-be 77th Metropolitan Division demonstrated their readiness to fight before huge crowds, including former president Theodore Roosevelt. After the parade, the draftees dispersed, most of them heading to the Polo Grounds, where they had been given free tickets to watch a baseball game between their beloved New York Giants and the Boston Braves. But things got a little rowdy.

The freshly minted doughboys, most from New York City and many from the Lower East Side, assembled in the upper grandstand, laughing and telling jokes as they watched the players warm up. They hoped for a relaxing afternoon, but first a parade of show-offs demanded their time in the sun. John Purroy Mitchel, the city’s “boy mayor,” stepped out first to home plate, where he gave a short speech. Turning alike to the players and soldiers, he shouted, “Fight clean, fight fair, fight hard, and win.”

The Doughboys Sing, Get Thirsty and Sarcastic

Next came Harry Barnhart, leader of New York City’s Community Chorus. He was a bundle of energy. The ball game could wait, he declared, as the draftees groaned. First he wanted everyone to sing. Pacing across the ballfield and waving his baton, he led the band in one patriotic song after another and insisted that the spectators join in. It seemed the music would never end. By the time the band got to the “Star-Spangled Banner” the crowd had lost interest. The ballplayers—among them five future Hall of Famers, including Giants manager John McGraw and thirty-year-old pinch hitter Jim Thorpe, just stood around looking bored.

But Barnhart hated to stop. Annoyed with the lack of enthusiasm, he turned to the players and shouted: “Now, you look like very good singers. Come here, all of you.” Some complied, but others caught the glint in his eyes and fled to their bullpens. Barnhart incarcerated the obedient ones in the practicing cage, and then routed the other players out of their bullpens while the crowd—eager that the players should suffer as much as they did—urged him on. Barnhardt won his campaign and celebrated by whipping the stadium into song after song.

Rising from the backdrop of a dwindling chorus, a rhythmic shouting spread from the upper grandstand through the crowd. Barnhart thought that everyone enjoyed the singing so much that they wanted more. “I’ll give them whatever they want,” he yelled, and raced over to the stands with his hand cocked to his ear. But the draftees had been gobbling free ham sandwiches all day and singing, and had become thirsty. They were chanting “We want soda!”

That finally shut him up. Boy scouts ran through the stands with baskets brimming with bottles of soda pop. The draftees mobbed the boy scouts—who escaped looking “badly ruffled” with empty baskets—and slaked their thirst. Maybe the game could begin; but no. The city authorities wanted another patriotic display.

A half-trained batch of non-commissioned officers called “Boyce’s Tigers” strutted onto the field and started marching back and forth. Sometimes they broke into bayonet charges against invisible enemies, screaming furiously. In response, the draftees let fly with a huge dose of New York City sarcasm. “Steal third!” they cried, and “come on home!” Eventually the Tigers withdrew, faces flushed in embarrassment.

The Game Begins, and So Does the War

Finally, the game began. The Giants seemed limp—understandably, maybe—and when a Braves slugger hit a home run in the sixth inning one of the many brass bands that Barnhart had brought to the stadium erupted into a rendition of “Smile, Smile, Smile,” causing the Giants players to glare with a hatred usually reserved for umpires. Then the Giants scored a run off a double in the eighth, leaving them behind 2-1, and the crowd really got into it.

At the end of the eighth inning, however, the action halted and the general commanding the 77th Division walked out onto the field. He gave a long, dull speech about how he hoped to rid Long Island’s Camp Upton, where the doughboys would train, of voracious mosquitos. By the time the general wrapped up his speech on pest control he had killed the game. It was hard to get excited after that, and the Braves drove the final nail in the coffin with another run. As the match ended with New York falling to Boston 3-1, the draftees staggered out of the Polo Grounds, tired and thinking not of baseball and ham sandwiches but of the billions of buzzing bloodsuckers that awaited them out on Long Island. A few days later they marched off, taking their first steps toward the Western Front.

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The Lost Battalion, World War I

Boxing Champion Benny Leonard Trained The Lost Battalion

Benny Leonard was born in a Jewish ghetto on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1896. Just a month after his twenty-first birthday, he became lightweight champion of the world. Next, he taught New York City’s own 77th “Metropolitan” Division how to fight.

The United States entered World War I by declaring war on Germany on April 6, 1917. That was the easy part. America lacked an army capable of fighting a major conflict, and since voluntary enlistment moved slowly, Congress passed the Selective Service Act on April 28. The national draft came into effect a few weeks later. Millions of young men would be inducted into the army over the months that followed. Many of those from greater New York City were sent to train at a mosquito-infested Long Island swamp called Camp Upton, where the 77th Division was being formed. These men came from all walks of life. Many were immigrants or the children of immigrants, who had known nothing but poverty. A quarter of them were Jewish.

Freddie Welsh vs Benny Leonard, May 28, 1917 world championship, boxers shaking hands in front of a crowd of men
Freddie Welsh vs Benny Leonard, world lightweight boxing title, May 28, 1917, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Benny Leonard, Boxing Instructor for US Army 77th Division

Benny Leonard came from the same background. The son of Eastern European immigrants, he began boxing professionally when he was only fifteen. Through determined training and experience in bouts over the following years, he capitalized on his natural speed and strength to become one of the best in his weight class. On May 28, 1917, Leonard claimed the world lightweight title by knocking out British champion Freddie Welsh at the Manhattan Casino in Harlem at 8th Avenue and 155th Street. He didn’t get much time to celebrate. That summer, Leonard was commissioned a boxing instructor for the U.S. Army with the rank of second lieutenant, and in October he was sent to Camp Upton, also known as Yaphank.

Camp Upton, black and white photo, where Benny Leonard trained 77th Division
Camp Upton, NY, where Benny Leonard trained the 77th Division, c.1914-18, Keystone View Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Leonard had to cancel most of his professional bouts, potentially losing thousands of dollars. But he loved his work with the soldiers. “You never saw a scrappier bunch than the boys at Yaphank,” he told reporters. “They are crazy to box and they plead for chances to put on the gloves.” He got in the ring with the men practically every day. “They’re full of pep, yes, chockful of it, every mother’s son of them,” he declared. “I was surprised to find when I got there the great number of boys who could box. Some of them are ex-pugilists and some had ambitions to go in the ring . . . By the time I get through with some of them they’ll make their mark in the ring if they come home safe from the other side.”

Leonard insisted on boxing individually with each of the officers. None of them could avoid a round in the ring and keep the respect of his men. To make things easier, the boxer let each officer take his best swing. Leonard blocked most of them but also came down with a black eye or two. One of the officers who likely gave him trouble in the ring was a burly Irishman named Captain George McMurtry, commanding the 308th Regiment’s Company E—widely regarded as the best-drilled in the whole division. McMurtry was a wealthy stockbroker in civilian life, but he packed a mean punch. Another officer who sparred with Leonard was a tall and awkward but fit and scrappy lawyer named Captain (later Major) Charles Whittlesey. He and McMurtry, along with many of the other officers and men who boxed Leonard, would later become heroes of the Lost Battalion. Maybe something of the determination they showed in the Argonne Forest came from their time in the ring with the champion boxer.

World War I soldiers returning from France aboard ship, two men boxing while crowd watches
“A friendly bout among our boys, on transport returning from France,” c.1914-18, Keystone View Company, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Benny Leonard’s protégé and the Lost Battalion

Leonard worked with the men of the 77th Division daily and carried them through regimental championships in six weight classes. By the time the division set off for Europe in March-April 1918, he had boxed personally with 3,500 men. But his work did not end there. Just before the war began, Leonard had gone to a New York orphanage and rescued a poor Jewish lad named Max “Fly” Gilbert. Leonard mentored the young man and taught him how to box. Ironically, Gilbert was drafted into the army in 1917 and sent to Camp Upton, where the two boxed again. But when the doughboys of the 77th Division sailed for Europe, Gilbert, who had been assigned to the 307th Regiment, went with them.

Leonard didn’t get to go to France. He had to stay stateside and keep training men. But he worried about “Fly,” who entered the front lines that summer. Not content with letters, which could take weeks to arrive and were heavily censored, Leonard sought somebody he could trust to keep a personal eye on his protégé. His choice: famed sportswriter Damon Runyon of the New York American, who had befriended Leonard while covering him in the ring and now was going to cover the war in France. Runyon would meet “Fly” Gilbert under fire in a muddy shell hole in the Argonne Forest in early October, while Whittlesey, McMurtry, and the men of the Lost Battalion fought for their lives.

Learn More About Benny Leonard and the Lost Battalion

Want to learn more about Benny Leonard, Damon Runyon and “Fly” Gilbert, described in my upcoming book Never in Finer Company along with the exploits of the Lost Battalion? Please share your email address below. You’ll get monthly emails about research discoveries, book updates, and more.

News, The Lost Battalion, World War I

Forthcoming Book About the Lost Battalion

I’m delighted to announce the completion of the manuscript for my new book, titled Never in Finer Company: The Men of the Great War’s Lost Battalion. It’s been a long process, alternately intimidating and exciting—and ultimately rewarding. This is going to be a good book.

A Family Story

The journey began three decades ago. Working on my family genealogy, I traced my connections to the Scots-Irish settlers of the Upper Cumberland—the mountainous, forested borderland of East Tennessee and Kentucky. In childhood I spent a lot of time here, getting to know the poor but hard-working people of the region, and enjoying their storytelling, music…and food! Research revealed that I was descended from the uncle of famed Tennessean David Crockett, and that my third cousin was World War I hero Alvin C. York.

Learning about York—the devout but troubled Christian who captured 132 Germans in the Argonne Forest of France in October 1918—led me to wonder how he and other men experienced and overcame the trials of combat in that terrible war. I read hundreds of diaries and memoirs of soldiers, nurses and other participants from all nations with growing fascination, eventually publishing a bibliography titled World War I Memories. In the process I learned how neglected this war has been in the United States.

As of ten years ago, no one had ever written a serious history of the Meuse-Argonne: to this day, the largest and bloodiest battle in the history of the United States. That’s why I wrote To Conquer Hell: The Meuse-Argonne, 1918. It was a labor of love, telling the battle’s story from the point of view of the doughboys who experienced it. The same feelings motivated my next book, Thunder and Flames: Americans in the Crucible of Combat, 1917-1918.

Alvin C. York seated, The Lost Battalion
Sgt. Alvin C. York, Bain News Service, between ca. 1915 and ca. 1920

The Lost Battalion

In the end, though, I came back to York, and to the few hundred men that he and his comrades were attempting to rescue when they entered the Argonne Forest. The “Lost Battalion” is one of the best-known episodes of American participation in the war, though it’s largely forgotten today. Composed of draftees from the 77th U.S. Division, most from greater New York City but many from New England and the mountain west, the Lost Battalion was cut off and surrounded for several days by German forces, who attacked it again and again with rifles, machine guns, mortars, grenades, and flamethrowers.

Two remarkable men led the Lost Battalion (really companies from a number of different units) to safety. One was a quiet, intellectual, idealistic New York City lawyer named Major Charles Whittlesey. The other was a millionaire New York stockbroker named Captain George McMurtry. Through their total dedication and sacrifice, these officers, with other heroes such as Captain Nelson Holderman of California, held the Lost Battalion together.

Who were these men, and what did they represent? Many of the doughboys in the Lost Battalion, even among the westerners, were recent immigrants to the United States who had lived in poverty and then been drafted to fight. Back home, many people questioned their loyalty and wondered if they were really Americans. Through their bravery in the pocket, however, these soldiers melded into comrades and proved their patriotism. In the process, they redefined what it means to be an American.

Their story might never have been told accurately had it not been for a fourth man and unlikely hero: journalist Damon Runyon, sportswriter, war correspondent, and legendary chronicler of New York City. Writing from the front where other reporters were content just to hang around headquarters, Runyon met Whittlesey and Runyon when they emerged from the pocket—safe, thanks in part to a man they had never met named Alvin C. York. The journalist’s very first story in France was about the Lost Battalion. In it, he focused on the humanity of everyday soldiers who fought because they loved their comrades and their country, and did so without expecting or receiving thanks.

The war changed Whittlesey, McMurtry, York, and Runyon. One was embittered, another consumed. A third took his guilt and anguish and channeled it toward good, finding meaning in trading his celebrity to help the poor and underprivileged. The fourth melded their experiences into a narrative of New York City, and of America, helping to redefine a nation. The story of these four men is one of heroism, heartbreak, and redemption. Ultimately, it is a story of the human spirit.

In the coming months, leading up to the planned publication of my book on September 25, 2018, I will share insights into my research and writing, and reveal many of my discoveries.

Learn More About the Lost Battalion

Are you interested in learning more about the Lost Battalion and Never in Finer Company? Share your email address, and I’ll send monthly emails about research discoveries, book updates, and more.


News

New Talk on America from the Revolutionary War to World War I

I will be giving a series of brand new talks, this year and next, on a variety of topics. My next event links together the Revolutionary War and World War I, showing how a particular ‘American Way of War’ inspired the United States fought from the time of its founding right up to the dawn of the twentieth century. Come to historic Anderson House (a lovely venue!) on July 13 at 6PM: https://washington.org/event/lecture-and-book-signing-testing-american-way-war-doughboys-bring-revolution-western-front

News, The Lost Battalion, World War I

BookDeal News: World War I

Da Capo Press has agreed to publish my latest work-in-progress; a story of heroism, suspense, tragedy, and inspiration in World War I. It recounts the incredible experiences of four average Americans who became extraordinary: Medal of Honor recipients Alvin C. York, Charles Whittlesey, and George McMurtry, whose lives converged in the saga of the Lost Battalion, and the sportswriter-turned-war correspondent Damon Runyon, who ensured their sacrifices would never be forgotten. Their experiences are set against a nation on the cusp of its greatest century, from the mean streets of New York City, to the rugged mountains of Tennessee, and the western plains. More details will follow as the project progresses.

Update: Read more about my forthcoming book.